Much has been written about the dramatic increase in attendances at Sincil Bank in recent years. Indeed, the National League game against Wrexham on 29 November 2016 (3,344) was the last time any league attendance failed to reach 5,000. Since then, City have enjoyed forty-two league gates in a row over 5,000, thirty-eight in a row over 6,000, thirty-five in a row over 7,000 and fourteen in a row over 8,000. That represents the best run of attendances since the late Fifties and is still growing. Average attendances under Danny Cowley rose to 5,161 in 2016-17 and 8,782 in 2017-18. The average for the 2018 calendar year is a shade under 9,000 and should surpass that by the end of December. Compared with the 2015-16 average of 2,594, that constitutes a breathtaking upturn.
So these are significant numbers with significant increases, and there are a great many reasons for it. We could cite variously a club starved of success, a long and honourable history in the Football League, a large population waiting for a decent club to support, the advent of a director with the right credentials, the appointment of a talented and charismatic manager, engagement with the community, good players with character, and so on. It would be hard to disagree with any of them.
Detractors exist, of course. Supporters of some clubs inevitably point to the fact that Lincoln do not have a Premier League club for fifty-five miles. The nearest EFL club to Sincil Bank is twenty-nine miles away in Scunthorpe, although their mediocre level of support is unlikely to have any real effect on Lincoln City. However, there is undoubtedly a truth in this. Lincoln do not have to compete for supporters in the same way as clubs situated closer to larger conurbations, and the problem of proximity has been the downfall of a large number of clubs throughout the history of football.
Consider the case of Darwen FC. Founded in 1870, Darwen were very much early pioneers of the game. They are believed to have hosted the first football match in the world to be played under floodlights in October 1878. They also reached the FA Cup quarter-final that season before losing in a second replay to eventual winners Old Etonians. Besides being no small achievement in itself, that run in the FA Cup was the first recorded instance of a working class football club from the north challenging the gentleman’s game of the south. Most notably, they became the first club in England to employ players professionally at that time.
The high point came in 1881 when Darwen reached the semi-final of the FA Cup, only to be beaten 4-1 by eventual winners Old Carthusians. They reached the quarter-final again in 1887, losing to eventual winners Aston Villa, and again in 1893 when they lost to eventual winners Wolves. Four of their players were capped by England during this period including seventeen-year-old Thurston Rostron, still the fourth youngest player ever to appear for England. This was some football club.
When the Football League came along in 1888, Darwen surprisingly missed out on membership by a single vote, possibly the victims of a veto by powerful neighbours in Bolton, Preston, Accrington, Burnley and Blackburn Rovers. After another unsuccessful application for election in 1890, they were finally elected to the First Division in 1891 with a point to prove. Somewhat predictably, their debut season resulted in a failure to secure re-election after finishing bottom of the table, but they were allowed to join the new Second Division instead.
Darwen again confounded the elite twelve months later by beating mighty Notts County in a test match to regain their First Division place at the first attempt, but wide cracks were already starting to appear. They were relegated straight back to the Second Division in 1894 after losing a test match to Small Heath, and never really challenged again. Five years later their Football League place was gone for good after deciding not to seek re-election at the AGM in June 1899. Having reformed the club and restored financial stability, they applied to be readmitted two seasons later, but the League had not forgotten or necessarily forgiven their resignation. Darwen never again darkened the door of the Football League, and after a long and respectable career in regional football, they finally folded in 2009.
So what led to one of the strongest teams from football’s earliest days resigning from the Football League it had been so eager to join? Inevitably, much of Darwen’s struggle for survival was simply a matter of geography. Although they were one of football’s original trailblazers, they had the misfortune to be situated in a region that was soon overcrowded with ambitious football clubs. Turton were founded in 1871, Bolton Wanderers in 1874, Blackburn Rovers and Ardwick in 1875, Great Lever in 1877, Blackburn Olympic, Accrington and Newton Heath in 1878, Preston North End and Nelson in 1880, Burnley in 1882, Bury in 1885 and Accrington Stanley in 1891. Despite their relative longevity, Darwen very quickly lost pre-eminence in the area as Blackburn Olympic won the FA Cup in 1883; worse was to follow as Blackburn Rovers won it for the next four years. Preston won the first ever League and Cup double in 1889, while Blackburn Rovers took the FA Cup home again in both 1890 and 1891.
A severe blow was suffered in 1890 when Blackburn Rovers – the FA Cup holders – decided to move their ground from Leamington Road (in the north west of the town) to their current home at Ewood Park, just two miles from Darwen’s ground at Barley Bank. To rub salt into that wound, Rovers named the southern terrace ‘The Darwen End’, a name that survives to this day. Ironically, financial concerns lay behind the move: Rovers themselves were having problems affording their lease at Leamington Road despite their dominance of English football throughout the 1880s. If England’s leading club was having problems on gates of up to 15,000, what chance did little Darwen have? The matter was reported at length in the minutes of Darwen’s board meetings of the time, although there were few suggestions of how this latest problem could be solved.
Average attendances during the club’s golden age of the 1880s fluctuated between 1,505 in 1883-84 to a high of 5,000 in 1888-89. Presumably the directors believed their elevation to the Football League in 1891 would generate a wave of support, but sadly Darwen never did receive the numbers their efforts deserved. Their first season in the League produced an average of just 4,920 including their record attendance at Barley Bank of 8,000 for the New Year’s Day defeat to neighbours Preston. Even then, they were not the worst supported club in the First Division with Stoke, Accrington and – surprisingly – FA Cup winners West Bromwich Albion recording a lower average.
Unfortunately, this state of affairs deteriorated steadily over the next decade. Attendances were a constant disappointment, especially given the financial demands of professionalism. Without higher crowds, they could not continue to afford professional players; without professional players, they could not compete. Amateur status returned, and despite a number of initiatives designed to raise capital and increase support, oblivion always lurked ominously on the horizon. Their final season as a League club in 1898-99 drew an average attendance of just 1,225, the lowest for sixteen years. A collection held at the Second Division game against Lincoln on 7 January 1899 raised £11 to supplement gate receipts of just £14, but these were tiny amounts even for those days. Sadly it was little more than window dressing. Players were not paid in February and debts were rumoured to be in excess of £250.
The record books also suggest a club out of its depth by the turn of the twentieth century, and that was undoubtedly true. In that final season of 1898-99 Darwen set four Football League records that still stand a hundred and twenty years later: the most successive League defeats (18), the most goals conceded in a League season (141 in only 34 games), the most goals conceded away from home (109 in 17 games), and the only team to suffer three 0-10 defeats in the same season. Furthermore, they also hold the record for the heaviest ever defeat in the First Division (0-12 v West Bromwich Albion in 1891-92). It was therefore no surprise that they chose not to seek re-election at the end of a disastrous season. The original club was wound up in May 1899 and the Barley Bank ground abandoned.
Darwen were not alone in their fate. Too many clubs were seeking a slice of a small cake, and it was inevitable that the vulnerable would fall by the wayside. Blackburn Olympic – FA Cup winners in 1883, remember – had gone to the great football ground in the sky as early as 1889 after neighbours Blackburn Rovers eclipsed them. The population of Blackburn at the time was around 120,000 but the town had the third highest level of economic distress in the country due to fluctuations in the cotton industry. The same problems afflicted the surrounding area including Darwen itself, with its much smaller population of 34,000. Even had the economic and social circumstances of the time been kinder, the intense competition for support within such a confined area would still have proved problematic.
Three other former Football League clubs from the area – Nelson, Accrington and the original Accrington Stanley – may also have been victims of not only the success of Blackburn and Burnley in particular, but also of their proximity to them. The original Accrington Reds had been founder members of the Football League in 1888 but found life very tough in terms of attracting the necessary support. They resigned from the League in 1893 rather than accept relegation to the Second Division, and it was a decision that cost them their existence. Following an unsuccessful attempt to rejoin the Football League in 1894, they folded in 1896 – ironically after a 0-12 defeat by Darwen.
Nelson had applied to join the Football League as early as 1897 but had to wait until 1921 for admission. After briefly reaching the Second Division in 1923, they lost their League place in 1931 after suffering large financial losses and have never returned despite eleven subsequent applications. Accrington Stanley also joined the League with Nelson in 1921 but famously resigned from the League towards the end of the 1961-62 season with debts of £63,000. Their final Football League home game against Rochdale in February 1962 was watched by just 2,727 despite an impassioned appeal from the directors for increased support, emphasising once more how hard survival continued to be in the area. Stanley struggled on for four more years before folding in 1966.
The story does not end there, of course. A number of other clubs have tried to impose themselves upon the north-western football landscape over the years, all of them with very little success. For instance, Stalybridge Celtic were founded in 1909 with the intention of providing another senior club for the east of Manchester region. They applied to join the League in 1913 but received just six votes. The First World War then intervened, but in 1921 the Football League needed four more clubs to make up the numbers for their new Third Division North; Stalybridge applied and took fourth place in the voting, narrowly ousting Castleford Town. They were in.
However, the same old problem returned to haunt them: Celtic’s home at Bower Fold was just seven miles from Manchester City’s home at Hyde Road which regularly attracted gates of up to 35,000. It was a battle Stalybridge could not win, and despite a relatively healthy average attendance of 5,480 for their first season in the League, in early 1923 they decided to resign after just two seasons. Ironically, Manchester City were to move into their new stadium at Maine Road later that same year and vacate eastern Manchester; perhaps Stalybridge should have persisted a while longer, but there had been a certain inevitability about their resignation from the beginning.
Shortly afterwards the name of Manchester Central appeared from nowhere. Setting up home at Belle Vue Stadium, Central were founded in 1928 by a former director of Manchester City who was seeking to fill the geographical gap left by City’s departure to Maine Road in August 1923.
Having employed legendary Manchester City and Manchester United striker Billy Meredith as coach (and his son-in-law and future Lincoln City star Charlie Pringle as captain), Central applied for election to the Football League at the end of their first season in 1929 but received no votes. They tried again the following year and fell just nine votes short of replacing Barrow in Division Three North. Gates at this time were relatively good with a high of 8,500 for a second round FA Cup tie against Wrexham in December 1929. In 1931 they were beaten to Football League membership by Chester, who replaced Nelson. Then came a very significant moment in both the history of Manchester Central and our story. In September 1931, Wigan Borough collapsed and resigned from the Football League; Central immediately applied to replace them and were accepted. Their ambition had been realised, and they were in the Football League.
All of a sudden, they were not. Manchester City and Manchester United jointly lodged a formal complaint on the grounds that a third League club in Manchester would potentially damage Manchester United in particular – United were struggling financially in the Second Division at the time. The Football League backed down of course, and Central were forced to return to the Cheshire County League. Despite the setback, they recovered well enough to reach the first round of the FA Cup again where they went down 3-0 to Charlie Pringle’s Lincoln in front of 4,827 at Belle Vue. However, that game was the last flicker of their flame: realising that their Football League ambition could never be realised, the club folded at the end of that season after just four seasons in existence.
History repeated itself yet again in 2005 with the formation of FC United of Manchester. Founded by disgruntled supporters of Manchester United, the intention was to provide a viable alternative matchday venue for those in opposition to the Glazer family’s takeover of the club. Despite having to play home games at Bury’s Gigg Lane ground for the first ten years, FCUM initially attracted good attendances including a record of 6,032 for a North West Counties League game in 2006. The club rose rapidly through the lower echelons of non-league football to take its place in National League North in 2015. At the same time the club moved into its own purpose-built stadium at Broadhurst Park in Moston, and things were looking set fair.
However. The average attendance during that first season at their new ground was an impressive 3,394, but that fell sharply to 2,667 in 2016-17. It slipped again to 2,109 in 2017-18, and this season it is struggling at 1,765 and falling with every game. That means their attendances have practically halved in three years. The advent of a tidal wave of cash at nearby Salford City is possibly one reason for that, and Salford’s rise to prominence can only damage FCUM’s prospects further. There have been several disputes regarding the management and direction of the member-owned club, meaning that everything is no longer sweetness and light in north-eastern Manchester. Football League status was the ultimate aim, yet the club may already be on the wane. Why would that be? Further to the Salford City problem, less than four miles to the south stands the Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City. It would appear that FC United of Manchester are not as appealing to the football public as Mr Guardiola’s side.
Quite why anyone would be surprised by that is a cause for some wonder. If there is room in the Manchester area for yet another senior football club, it has yet to be found. The fact remains that there are neighbours in the vicinity, they are considerably larger than you are, and they are unlikely to go away.
Forming a football club in that area is the sporting equivalent of banging one’s head against a very immovable brick wall, yet the lesson of reality still has not been learned. We now have Salford City trying the same trick and hoping against all rule of logic to buck the immutable trend of history. There are only five miles between Salford’s redeveloped home at Moor Lane and two slightly larger grounds called Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium. There is an obvious problem here: the higher the club wishes to progress within the football pyramid, the more money will be required; in order to generate that money, higher gates are required; with both Manchester United and Manchester City right on their doorstep, how exactly do they propose to do that? Do they really expect the people of Salford to stop watching Manchester United in the best league in the world in favour of an artificially-generated mushroom club in the lower divisions?
Trying to establish another Football League club in the Manchester conurbation is a battle that has never been won. Gary Neville and his pals can burn all the money they like in their attempt to create permanence from a transitory existence, but they must become bored at some point. Neville has his television commitments, Ryan Giggs has a national team to manage, while Nicky Butt heads up the Manchester United Academy. And does avid Oldham supporter Paul Scholes really want to obliterate the club he has followed since childhood? The novelty of throwing large sums of money at any project eventually pales, and it is impossible to see Salford surviving as a viable professional football club without huge subsidies. It is very difficult to see anyone else taking over the financial obligations they have already created, and the club can only head in one direction thereafter.
For Darwen, read Stalybridge Celtic. For Stalybridge Celtic, read Manchester Central. For Manchester Central, read FC United of Manchester. For FC United of Manchester, read Salford City.
The reason why? The neighbours are too big and too noisy for you. Have fun while it lasts, boys.
Who did our members consider to be October’s star players?
Player of the Month in terms of pure numbers is SAM SLOCOMBE, although his rating comes from just one match. Realistically, TOM PETT takes the accolade after a string of top performances in midfield. The fact that he is collecting rave reports both at home and away bodes well for his season.
Second place is taken by captain LEE FRECKLINGTON despite making only three appearances due to suspension and injury. City’s minor dip in form coincides with his absence; he will be welcomed back, and as soon as possible.
Third place goes to last year’s Player of the Season NEAL EARDLEY, returning to his best form during the month. Perhaps the best yardstick for Eardley is to consider exactly how much we miss him when he is not playing. Colchester, anyone?
A special mention this month for Matt Rhead after the big man turned back the clock with some classic Rhead performances. He needs just two more goals to become the twenty-fourth player in the club’s history to reach fifty.
The average team score of 6.61 is marginally down on September (6.67).
(1. Sam Slocombe 7.67)
2. Tom Pett 7.07
3. Lee Frecklington 7.02
4. Neal Eardley 6.88
5. Matt Rhead 6.82
6. Shay McCartan 6.77
7. Bruno Andrade 6.693
8. Scott Wharton 6.689
9. Kellan Gordon 6.67
10. Michael Bostwick 6.62
11. Josh Vickers 6.59
12. Michael O’Connor 6.58
13. Harry Toffolo 6.55
14. Harry Anderson 6.464
15. Jason Shackell 6.460
16.17. James Wilson 6.31
18. Matt Green 6.05
19. John Akinde 6.02
20. Adam Crookes 5.92
21. Bernard Mensah 5.25
Individual ratings by match:
Tranmere: Shay McCartan 7.14
Crewe: Jason Shackell 7.16
Scunthorpe: Bruno Andrade 7.75
Port Vale: Shay McCartan 8.92
Cambridge: Josh Vickers 7.63
Carlisle: Tom Pett 6.90
Colchester: Michael Bostwick 6.05
So where does that leave us regarding the current player of the season standings?
1. Tom Pett 7.10
2. Bruno Andrade 6.90
3. Jason Shackell 6.88
Home Player of the Season:
1. Tom Pett 7.15
2. Bruno Andrade 7.08
3. Jason Shackell 7.01
Away Player of the Season:
1. Scott Wharton 7.25
2. Tom Pett 7.04
3. Josh Vickers 6.93
Player of the Month:
August: Josh Vickers 7.33
September: Jason Shackell 7.47
October: Tom Pett 7.07
Acknowledgement is given to Death In The Peaceful Valley: The Demise Of Darwen Football Club 1885-1899 by Robert Lewis for some of the statistics given in this article.
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) November 8, 2018